Dr. Fiona Sampson on her career, the importance of human rights advocacy, and the possibilities of justice for women

Posted: 02/22/2019

Feb 22, 2019 

Dr. Fiona Sampson is the recipient of the Law Society’s 2018 Human Rights Award. She is a highly respected advocate for the rights of survivors of sexual violence in Canada and abroad. A human rights lawyer with a PhD in women’s equality law, she has dedicated her career to seeking justice for First Nations’ communities, refugees, persons with disabilities and victims of sexual violence.

Dr. Sampson is the founder and CEO of the EQUALITY EFFECT, a non-profit charity that uses international human rights law and creative legal advocacy projects to achieve systemic change. In recognition of her work, she was appointed an Ashoka Fellow in 2013 and was named one of the 25 top most influential lawyers in Canada by Canadian Lawyer Magazine, as well as, top five on the World Stage in 2014. Dr. Sampson was also named one of 50 “Global Heroes” working to end violence against children. She was appointed as a Member of the Order of Canada in 2015 and received an honorary doctorate from Trent University in 2017, in recognition of her contribution to human rights law.

We spoke with Dr. Sampson to get her thoughts on the award, her career, and why human rights work is necessary now.

The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

How and why were you drawn to human rights work?

I was pretty much motivated to challenge injustice from the time that I was able to speak. I was born a thalidomide victim and so, early on, I developed an appreciation of living outside of the norm and having experiences of stigmatization, discrimination and inequality. I can remember being three or four years old and being indignant at the disadvantages that I was experiencing—even the mild, micro-aggressive forms. As I got older, those experiences became more intense. I remember my mother holding my hand and being there to support me but also being surprised when I would resist any kind of negative treatment. I think I was maybe DNA-programed to challenge negative experiences of discrimination [laughs]. I had an amazing team of people supporting the work that I do from those early days and my mother literally holding my hand by my side.

How did your mother shape you into becoming who you are?

My mother was a feminist from early on; an immigrant woman in Canada. She and her friends started the Natural Childbirth Association of Canada. She was advocating and organizing activist initiatives from home so I got on-the-job learning from her and her friends. Those women that she organized with were her greatest friends until she died. I have benefited from these amazing teams of women and men who are kindred spirits and who have really made all the work that I have done possible.

How did your work begin with the EQUALITY EFFECT?

The EQUALITY EFFECT was founded 11 years ago by myself and several friends and colleagues from Kenya, Ghana and Malawi. We saw an opportunity to work collaboratively to advance girls’ rights and make them real using the law as it had developed in Canada, for better or worse, as our touchstone. We develop initiatives that challenge the state response specifically to violence against women in that particular country’s governing context.

Congratulations on being awarded the Law Society’s Human Rights Award. What does this recognition mean for you?

It means a couple of things. It means the invaluable endorsement of the unique work that I’ve done throughout my career which has been team-based legal practice. From the very beginning of my career, starting in law school at Queen’s, and then as an articling student at the Human Rights Commission, I’ve always been working in teams of collaborative and now interdisciplinary human rights experts at the EQUALITY EFFECT. I feel like this award is an endorsement of this innovative and unique approach to the law. It sounds a bit cliché, but all of the work that I’ve achieved and the success we’ve seen—whether it’s in the context of thalidomide or Indigenous rights or violence against women—have been team-based. And these are all pro bono teams; a hugely generous network of people that have made this work possible. Having the Law Society endorse that through this award feels like a great gift and a great expression of gratitude to all those team members who tirelessly and generously donate their time to make a difference.

It takes a village, right?

It really does. The humour and positive energy and the enthusiastic collaboration makes this all so worthwhile, especially because in this work you meet the whole spectrum of humanity. The work that I do in Kenya—working to end impunity for the rape of little girls, getting exposed to men who rape three-month old little girls—is at the end of the spectrum of humanity. And then at the other end we have funders, social workers, police, human rights lawyers and all our team members who give such heartwarming and generous support. It balances out some of that extreme negativity you get exposed to.

Justice Club Mombasa Leaders

What are your thoughts on the state of human rights advocacy and international humanitarian work?

It is tempting to be overwhelmed and be despondent in the face of the many challenges, but I think it’s also an opportunity to be vigilant. There’s a risk that the most vulnerable get abandoned and ignored during times that are challenging, and that makes me focus even more tightly on the need to protect and preserve the rights of little girls, for example. Through the collaborative, interdisciplinary approach that the EQUALITY EFFECT uses, we have opportunities to ensure that we make progress on this front. This again sounds a bit cliché, but the young people that we work with are so amazingly energetic, single-minded and inspirational in their commitment to honouring and advancing human rights that it just seems non-negotiable in terms of considering any other options.

What would you say to lawyers and paralegals interested in doing human rights advocacy?

In all of our daily lives, we get faced with opportunities to make a difference. I think of our Justice Club leaders in Kenya, who step up on a daily basis and take their own initiative once they’ve received the background and the education relating to their rights. They’re fearless. I would encourage individuals to be their own champions and to take that same initiative and know that they can make a difference. I think if 12-year old girls in Kenya can stand up to sexual perpetrators and get justice, any of us can. The satisfaction of contributing to something that you’re passionate about is so good for the soul that I’d highly recommend it, especially in this day and age.

Dr. Fiona Sampson will receive her award at a special ceremony at Osgoode Hall on Wednesday, February 27. For more details on this public event, please click here.